- 13 Mar 07, 10:14 AM
Belfast – Now that my very temporary support of England (for very selfish reasons you understand) has quickly evaporated in the thermals above Twickenham, I can look forward to what should be a thrilling Six Nations finale.
But fair play to Brian Ashton’s boys - who took advantage of a French team that looked asleep for most of the game. So much so, they should have worn their pyjamas, particularly out in the three-quarters.
Anyway, from an Ireland perspective, England’s deserved victory reignites hopes of a first outright Championship title for 22 years. Whoever organised the final Saturday for St Patrick’s Day must know something none of the rest of us do.
Unfortunately, Ireland took a bit of a battering against the Scots, with Paul O’Connell getting the thumbs down from the fitness boys and his absence will be a big loss against the buoyant Italians.
His replacement Mick O’Driscoll is no slouch, but the absence of O’Connell will negate a lot of Ireland’s line-out prowess. The Munsterman is an all-action contributor around the park, but against the Italians, out of touch possession is going to be a crucial factor in the game.
In fact it will be all about possession. On paper, Wales looked the better team with more strike runners than most. But if you haven’t got the ball, the end result against the robust Italians is all too obvious.
If there was nothing to play for this weekend, I suspect that Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan might have been tempted to rest some of his front-line players in what has been a gruelling campaign for all the protagonists.
But with England putting that giant spanner in the works, O’Sullivan has the silver service on parade again in the hope of collecting another trophy to go with the Triple Crown tray and the Century Quaich. The Quaich? Well, it’s yet another silver salver which is awarded to the winners of the game between Scotland and Ireland. The more the merrier, I say.
But Rome will be no picnic as Ireland are first up in the battle for the Championship title. Stadio Flaminio will be like the Coliseum, and all the history that surrounds that wonderful icon of the past.
Ireland’s goal is to set a target for the rest of catch. They are at present four points behind France, who will have the benefit of knowing their goal when they stroll out at Stade de France in the second match of the day.
Italy will have no baggage now that they achieved their best finish since they entered the fray in 2001.
Ireland visited Rome that year and scored five tries, with that man-for-all-seasons Rob Henderson enjoying his best day in an Ireland jersey with a hat-trick.
A great character is Rob, who is now plying his trade with Toulon. Of stocky build and hardly the well-honed athlete of today’s variety, he loved a drag or two on the old coffin nails.
His first try was a brilliant effort from the halfway line and after he had dived over in the left-hand corner it was reported that he breathlessly asked a sideline photographer for a drag on his cigarette.
He was the hero of the hour, and after the game in the physio room while giving interviews to the congregating hacks, Rob lay back like Nero on his couch with a towel hiding his particulars, and drawing satisfaction from yet another cigarette. Ah, those were the days.
They will certainly be different from Saturday, where Ireland will need to draw the sting out of the Italians up front. And they can sting too. Just ask Brian Ashton.
The current England coach was in charge of Ireland when they lost 37-22 in Bologna in 1999 – the third successive defeat to the Azzurri.
If Ireland can get parity of possession, then one would imagine if the three-quarters can rekindle the ingenuity they lost against Scotland, they will do the business.
I will not be in Rome, but I will be celebrating St Paddy’s Day in the best alternative way with a weekend in Bath. It’s a family thing, but I’ve been given the Saturday off. What's a good rugby pub in Bath then?